Review: Rowntree Players in Dick Whittington, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday

“Let’s remember what it feels like to come together to sing, to dance, to perform, to laugh,” enthuses Rowntree Players’ pantomime director, Howard Ella

FIRST came the announcement: “In the interests of everyone’s safety, please ensure masks are worn at all times”.

“Ensure”. Good word, that one, stopping all the wishee-washeeness that has prevailed so far, when there is a new variant in town.

Major London theatres are making masks compulsory (for all but children); York theatres really should be singing from the same panto song-sheet too. Anything that helps to keeps theatres open is not an unreasonable request to make.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington and the ensemble in Rowntree Players’ Dick Whittington

Rant over. If masks are one emblem of pantomime-in-pandemic times, it is comforting to have familiarity too. Look at the sign in Rowntree Theatre’s London street scene: Ivor Leak, Plumber. Ho, ho.

Or look at the cubs and brownies filling row after row at the JoRo, bouncing up and down on their seats on a Monday night. It was ever thus at this community show.

“Let’s make the most of it and remember what it feels like to come together to sing, to dance, to perform, to laugh,” says director Howard Ella in his programme notes. How right he is.

Belting performance: Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren

Perish the thought that any theatre should ever rehash an old pantomime script – no names, no pack drill – but Rowntree Players have every right to revisit Ella and regular co-writer Andy Welch’s Dick Whittington, last year’s cancelled panto. Now it is the equivalent of a Christmas pudding becoming all the richer for having had to be put back in the larder for a year.

Hannah King’s resourceful, sprightly Dick Whittington and the ensemble set the tone with the opening Here I Am, establishing the Yorkshireman abroad in London Town vibe, grappling with a strange place of rhyming slang and “Oy, oy, Saveloy”.

Ami Carter’s choreography is superb throughout, knitting principal actors, principal dancers and the young team together so assuredly, and she hits her stride early in Money, marking Martyn Hunter’s return to the Rowntree panto ranks as mayoral candidate and rodent villain King Rat as he leads this irresistible number from Cabaret with panache.

In the pit: Musical director Jessica Douglas, centre, and guitarist Georgia Johnson

The song-and-dance list will go on to draw heavily on musicals, some well-known, some rather less so (Love Is Your Legs, from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for example), but all well chosen and delivered with musical-theatre oomph by musical director Jessica Douglas’s band.

Pantomimes need to combine the tried and tested with the fresh, and here Ella’s regular trouble-making comedy double act of Graham Smith’s saucy, head-strong, sometimes brusque dame, Dora Di Sorderlie, and Gemma McDonald’s daft, accident-prone, lovable, ginger-nutted Duncan Di Sorderlie, must play hapless security guards at Alderman Fitzwarren’s bank. 

Their verbal interplay is always a joy, their physical slapstick peaking as they are drenched in coins, but to be pernickety, on occasion they could pick up the pace a tad, especially in the long first half.

Rat-a-tat-tat: Martyn Hunter’s King Rat and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille in a musical number in Dick Whittington

One stretched-out discussion between Hunter’s King Rat and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s sidekick Ratatouille had the cubs and brownies fidgeting, but otherwise this is a second partnership of highly experienced principals that clicks, albeit Hunter could have had a more poisonous bite to his ratty demeanour.

Company stalwart Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren is suitably avuncular and the show’s knockout vocal award goes to singing teacher Ellie Watson for a belting My Hero in the role of Alice Fitzwarren.

Bernie Calpin’s sassy Kit the Cat is an unusually chatty moggie and all the better for it, when so often Dick’s companion merely meows.

Gemma McDonald’s Duncan Di Sorderlie and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s Daisy duetting on Love Is Your Legs

Adding to the pleasure are the uncredited set designs, and even more so the costumes, especially for Smith’s dame (look out for the Chocolate Whip!).

Smith relishes one joke in particular. When McDonald’s Duncan talks of “not making a scene” after losing a job as a set builder, the dame waspishly adds: “Unlike someone”. Who could Graham possibly mean?!

Rowntree Players present Dick Whittington at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until December 11, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Saturday. Ticket availability: tonight and Friday, widest choice; Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday night, limited; Saturday matinee, last few. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk. 

Shocking pink: Graham Smith in saucy mode as Dame Dora Di Sorderlie

Review by Charles Hutchinson

‘Excited isn’t the word!’ says director Howard Ella as Rowntree Players prepare to open Dick Whittington on panto return

Rowntree Players’ principal cast members: Gemma McDonald’s Duncan, left, Hannah King’s Dick Whittington, Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren, Graham Smith’s Dame Dora and Martyn Hunter’s King Rat

DICK Whittington had to turn round and rest up for a year when Rowntree Players’ 2020 show was cancelled by Covid.

Now, however, Dick and his cat  will be on the road from York to London from Saturday (4/12/2021), when the Players take to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre stage with director Howard Ella and co-writer Andy Welch’s pantomime.

Joining Hannah King’s Dick Whittington in the cast will be Graham Smith’s Dame Dora; Gemma McDonald’s Duncan; Martyn Hunter’s King Rat; Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille; Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren; Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren and Bernie Calpin’s Kit The Cat.

Howard and Andy first wrote the script remotely, via a satellite link, before the 2020 show was called off. “Socially distanced writing – that was a challenge,” says Howard. “I work away a lot so there had always been an element of remote collaboration, but this was full on.

“What was missing was the ability to read and act as we wrote without a satellite delay. That one-second delay kills humour stone dead, so there was a lot of writing on instinct. Then we had to shelve the script. Totally gutting.”

Roll on a year and out came the script again. “What was great was to lift it out a year later, read it with fresh eyes and still enjoy it,” says Howard. “What’s most strange is that it really demonstrated the stasis we have been in.  It still felt relevant, if only because so much of our world of Covid and politics did not change.

“Of course, once we start blocking with the cast, then the gags change and everyone throws in their bit.”

Comedy writing as a duo, in the tradition of Galton & Simpson and Le Frenais & Clement, works well for the Players’ pantos. “I’ve written on my own and with both Barry [former dame Barry Benson] and Andy on different panto years,” says Howard.

“It’s exciting as you can bounce off each other and try things out before anyone else ever sees the script. The trick in making that writing partnership work is honesty and trust. When you don’t find something funny, when it’s not quite good enough, you have to say so and in a clear way.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington is ready to set off from York to London in Rowntree Players’ Dick Whittington

“If you’re on the other end of the criticism, that’s where the trust kicks in. You trust you partner’s judgement and screw up the page. Sometimes tough, but you have to see it as collaboration, not compromise.”

This year’s cast is down in size by a couple of principals. “But that was story driven,” reasons Howard. “We wrote the script in early 2020 assuming Covid would drift past, so, in reality, there’s no compromises there. The script has the cast it always needed.

“That said, our chorus numbers are slightly lower to facilitate sensible spacing in dressing rooms and to deal with the [pandemic-enforced] practicalities, like not being able to share costumes between teams.”

Adapting to Covid restrictions has created extra challenges both in rehearsal and at the JoRo theatre. “We’ve had mask wearing and sanitising and spacing where we can,” says Howard.

“Everyone has been on different testing regimes through work and school, and they have been ever changing. Also, there’s double jabs where possible (and some of us oldies are boosted too!)

“What’s great is that the Joseph Rowntree Theatre is aligned with all the guidelines and so we’ve worked together, more than ever, to make it as safe as possible for everyone, both backstage and in the audience.

“But in reality we’re in the lap of the gods. From here on in, we put on a great show and hope that we all stay healthy. Otherwise, I’ll be picking up a script and donning a frock!”

As the first night approaches, what’s the mood in the camp?  “Excited isn’t the word!  We have missed the community aspect so much – and you only realise the strength of bond between the Rowntree Players company when it hasn’t been there and we all get back together.

“Stepping into the theatre on Sunday for the get-in, seeing all those familiar, yet strangely masked, faces was a delight. We haven’t done this for two years but it’s all come flooding back.

Rowntree Players’ Gemma McDonald, Hannah King, Ellie Watson, Martyn Hunter and Graham Smith dress in pantomime character on a day out at Murton Park, the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, near York

“In the company, we have a lot of returning cast and chorus, which has really helped us to short-cut through both Covid and a slightly curtailed rehearsal period because we slotted in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web in September, having delayed that production three times.

“Martyn Hunter has returned to the panto fold after a few years away and he’s done so with gusto, as has Bernie Calpin as Kit the Cat.”

Balancing work commitments with rehearsals, Howard is delighted to be bringing Dick Whittington to the stage. “At its heart, Dick Whittington has traditional pantomime roots. That’s what I love. We try and make every pantomime relevant, recognise how the world is changing and represent it in our own way.  

“But underneath all good pantomimes is a tale of right and wrong with a love story in the background and the freedom to be silly in between.

“I’ve also always liked the reminder that nowhere’s streets are paved with gold and that generally you have to work hard and you get out what you put in,” he says, “channelling his inner Yorkshireman”.

Saturday’s opening show will be emotional for cast and audience alike, given the sense of community at the core of all the Players’ work. “Everything we do at Rowntree Players aims to be inclusive of anyone who wants to take part,” says Howard, who is presenting Dick Whittington in tandem with choreographer Ami Carter, musical director Jess Douglas and production manager Helen Woodall.

“There’s a real commitment, there’s a pride in being involved with such an old society returning to the theatre where they started.

“The joy for any audience comes from the cast and their joy in being part of a production. We get so much pleasure from our hobby, we laugh an enormous amount, and I think that enjoyment flows over the pit and into the auditorium in everything we do.”

Rowntree Players present Dick Whittington at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 4 to 11. Performances: 7.30pm, except Sunday; 2pm matinees, Saturday, Sunday and next Saturday. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Are you up for Hannah’s online dance fitness class for Rowntree Theatre?

Joseph Rowntree Theatre: Raise The Roof appeal

REGULAR Joseph Rowntree Theatre performer Hannah King will run an online virtual dance fitness class tomorrow morning in aid of the JoRo’s Raise The Roof appeal in York. 

From 10am to 11am, Hannah will guide an enthusiastic group of theatre supporters through their steps as they dance to favourite show tunes.

Graham Mitchell, the Haxby Road theatre’s events and fundraising director, says: “Already we have more than 20 participants but, being online, there’s space for everyone.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, you can join in. We’ve even got participants in Troon and Aberdeen! At only £3 a slot, it’s a cheap way to have a fun hour of fitness and raise money for our appeal at the same time.”

The JoRo launched its Raise The Roof campaign last week by creating an online music video put together “virtually” during lockdown. The appeal has garnered more than  £2,000 already and tomorrow’s online dance class will see this total grow over the weekend.

Dan Shrimpton, chair of trustees of the JoRo charity, say: “There’s a real swell of support from all those connected with the theatre, from stewards to performers, from stage crew to hirers. This dance class is the second event in a chain of many fundraisers that we have in the pipeline.”

To join in Hannah’s fitness fundraiser, email her at hannahfking@live.com for details.

To launch the Raise The Roof campaign, the theatre has set up a Just Giving page and is encouraging people to donate “even just the amount of a takeaway coffee”.  Go to: justgiving.com/campaign/Raise-the-Roof.